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San Mateo County Leaders Push to Prioritize East Palo Alto for COVID-19 Vaccine

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State Sen. Josh Becker speaks to reporters at the Cesar Chavez Ravenswood Middle School in East Palo Alto on March 1, 2021, in a push to make more doses of the COVID-19 vaccine available to residents in the city.  (Voler Strategic Advisors)

Elected officials in San Mateo County are calling on the federal government and California to prioritize COVID-19 vaccines for East Palo Alto and other lower-income communities that have been hardest hit by the pandemic.

Democratic state Sen. Josh Becker, who represents most of San Mateo County, said he is pressing for greater vaccine supply and more resources to inoculate East Palo Alto residents, many of whom are low-wage essential workers.

“This community has been on the front lines, and providing human capital to allow those of us who have the privilege of working from home to continue to do so,” said Becker at a press conference outside Cesar Chavez Ravenswood Middle School in East Palo Alto. “They have stood with us during our darkest hours and they must be treated like the priority that they are.”

East Palo Alto has one of the county’s highest COVID-19 case rates, but also the lowest proportion of residents who've gotten the vaccine. Nearly 12% of people who live in the predominantly Latino city have received at least one dose of the vaccine, compared to 47% in much wealthier Atherton, according to county figures.

The big gap is largely due to structural inequalities that have plagued East Palo Alto for decades, said City Council member Antonio López. The city is walking distance from multibillion-dollar corporations, but many of its residents are living in poverty, he said.

“An aggressive vaccination rollout is what the fight for racial equity and social justice is and looks like in 2021,” said López. “There are still two sides to the Bay Area: one with instant and immediate access to basic resources, and the other living paycheck to paycheck, struggling to figure out how to keep their family safe.”

East Palo Alto has a slightly smaller population than neighboring Menlo Park, but three times as many COVID-19 cases, according to county data.

Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill that includes more than $71 billion to expand testing and vaccine distribution. The American Rescue Plan Act, which the Senate may take up in the coming days, but faces fierce opposition from Republican lawmakers, would also provide $27 billion to address health disparities and protect vulnerable populations.

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Low-income residents often face additional challenges in getting vaccinated, such as lack of internet connectivity to sign up for appointments, or transportation constraints that make it difficult to get to an inoculation site.

Undocumented immigrants who live in East Palo Alto — where 40% of the population is foreign born — may not trust the vaccination process, fearing it could get them in trouble with immigration authorities.

County officials said to overcome those barriers, they are working with a local community clinic, Ravenswood Family Health Center, and other trusted organizations to inform East Palo Alto residents about the vaccine, and inoculate those who are eligible, said Deputy County Manager Justin Mates.

“San Mateo County recognizes that the persistent inequities affecting communities with the greatest exposure to COVID-19 also contribute to barriers in reaching everyone who is eligible to be vaccinated,” Mates said in a statement. “We are working with a diverse group of community partners and entities with deep roots in the East Palo Alto community to overcome these barriers and to keep learning what is necessary to increase trust and confidence in the safe and effective vaccine.”

Neighboring Santa Clara County has opened large vaccination sites in disproportionately impacted communities, such as East San Jose, and gone door to door to inform residents that the vaccine is safe, free of cost and available regardless of immigration status. County health officials are also distributing doses in hard-hit neighborhoods through mobile clinics that don’t require patients to have prior appointments.

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But San Mateo County has not yet opened a large vaccination site in East Palo Alto, nor set up mobile clinics in the area, although local officials are considering the strategy, said David Canepa, president of the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors.

The biggest problem has been that the state is not providing a sufficient or consistent flow of vaccine doses to counties, said Canepa, and local officials struggle to plan in advance to get the ever-changing supply into people’s arms.

Canepa said he is hopeful the recently approved Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which only requires one dose instead of two, could be a “game changer.” He said those new doses should be targeted to front-line workers such as those in East Palo Alto.

“I would suggest maybe going to those communities that need it the most that are essential workers, that we prioritize them with the J&J vaccine,” said Canepa. “Getting them their vaccine and then they can get on, instead of going back for the second dose in two or three weeks — that may be the best way and the equitable way in dealing with it.”

Following state guidelines, San Mateo County officials have focused on vaccinating people ages 65 and older. But fewer seniors in that age group live in East Palo Alto compared to other parts of the county, which has contributed to the lower vaccination rate in that city, said Mates, the deputy county manager.

But since the county recently expanded vaccine eligibility to include child care providers, food service employees and other essential workers, more people in the city should now be able to get the shot, he said.

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